Content Creation, Life Changing Salads, and Introducing Millions to Plant-Based Eating
Content Creation, Life Changing Salads, and Introducing Millions to Plant-Based Eating

"Eating choices are so connected beyond just your eating choices. It's your emotional relationships, it's the stress in your life. There's so much more involved." 

- Danielle Brown

Danielle Brown, founder, and CEO of Healthy Girl Kitchen joins Elizabeth this week. With her wildly popular brand, Danielle has captivated millions of devoted followers across social media, sharing easy-to-make vegan recipes and insightful tips for healthier eating. In their conversation, Danielle offers some great actionable and easy tips to start eating better, including a few secrets for crafting those stunning and delicious life-changing salads. She talks about content and recipe creation and some fun behind-the-scenes moments while making her best-selling cookbook, The Healthy Girl Kitchen. Danielle's genuine passion for plant-based cooking and dedication to her non-judgemental community help make health more approachable.



    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey. This week's guest is Danielle Brown, founder, and CEO of the wildly popular plant-based lifestyle brand HealthyGirl Kitchen. The New York Times Best Selling cookbook author shares easy-to-make vegan recipes across social media with her millions of devoted followers who want to learn how to eat healthier, fall in love with cooking, and the secrets to making the best plant-based meals. In this episode, Danielle shares her journey from feeling sick in college to taking matters into her own hands, transitioning with small changes to a vegan diet, and launching her blog. We talk about tips for healthy eating, transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, how she's dealing with being a new mom, her favorites for a life-changing salad and so much more. As a fellow Institute of Integrative Nutrition alumni, I love Danielle's approach to wellness and her judgment-free, inspiring message for all. Keep listening to learn more. If you haven't had the chance to try our grain-free granolas yet, head on over to Walmart to now find them in the gluten-free Healthy Living aisle and select Walmart locations. Our grain-free granola has crunchy clusters of nets, super fruit seeds, and creamy nut butter all baked with organic coconut oil and sweetened with coconut sugar. They are gluten-free, paleo, and keto certified. Use the link in the notes section to find Purely Elizabeth products at a Walmart store near you. Danielle, welcome to the podcast. It's such a pleasure to connect with you. I'm so excited for our conversation today.

    Danielle Brown 01:56
    I can't wait to hang out. I was just telling you that the first healthy granola I ever bought when I first started to eat healthy, first started to be vegan, you were like my go-to granola and still are. So, thank you. I'm excited to talk.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:09
    Well, a perfect segue as you said when you just start to eat healthy, so you were not always healthy it sounds like. So that's why and back to your beginning and your journey when you started to eat healthy and what made you change your diet and go on a plant-based vegan diet?

    Danielle Brown 02:28
    You're right I was not always healthy or thought I was. I think the definition of healthy has changed over time. There were so many trends. But what my mom thought was maybe healthy at the time when she was giving us is not what today's mom is feeding their kids. We didn't do quinoa. There was no avocado toast. It was like special case cereal with berries was the healthy cereal option and that was healthy over something like cocoa puffs or tricks or something like that

    Elizabeth Stein 02:58
    Where did you grow up?

    Danielle Brown 03:00
    I grew up in Michigan, right outside Detroit in Farmington, and grew up there. I was born in New Jersey and was raised in Michigan. Pretty small community. I'm Jewish. I went to Jewish private day schools my whole life. So I always went to schools with really small grades. I've pretty much had the same friends my whole life. I now live in Florida. People always like Wonder they always see me traveling to Michigan but I live in Florida now. I just had to escape the cold. The cold is not for me.

    Elizabeth Stein 03:32
    Well, I just drive back from Florida too and it was a balmy 97 degrees and it felt so good.

    Danielle Brown 03:41
    It's hot in the summer I have to say it's not my favorite. But I would take three months of a Florida summer over seven-eight months of Michigan winter, cold weather. But yeah, I was not always vegan. I grew up eating meat, dairy, and eggs typical of standard American family dinners. Every night there would be a protein which was like chicken or fish. We didn't eat that much red meat as a family. Some starch and vegetables. My mom cooked dinner every single night. We always had family dinner and I feel like that's where my love for you know food and sharing food with everyone started. And looking back, I love that about my mom and my family. That every single night no matter what, she'd say,” Turn off the TV. Stop what you're doing. Everyone has to come to the table and eat dinner.” So I'm thankful that my mom did that. And I'm excited to do that with my kids. But yeah, we grew up eating meat, dairy, and eggs. When I was in high school, I went vegetarian. But I was an unhealthy vegetarian. I still eat mac and cheese pizza, all the yummy things that you can eat when you still eat dairy. It wasn't till college that I went vegan. So I switched to a plant-based diet during my freshman year. I went to Michigan State University and they're known for their dining halls. Their dining halls are big Basically like mall food courts. They have everything from all-you-can-eat pasta, all-you-can-eat, and omelet stations, they have these make-your-own ice cream cookie sandwich stations. It was amazing. You could pick your cookies. You could pick your ice cream flavor and make your ice cream cookie sandwich. Soft serve machines in the dining halls. They had everything. And this was fun for a semester. But I noticed I started to feel sick after meals. I would get back to my dorm and I'd have the worst stomachache where I felt super fatigued and would need to sleep for three hours. And after a couple of months of doing this, I didn't like the way I felt. I knew that I had to eat healthier for myself. Because it wasn't about weight. It was just how I was feeling inside. And I had no idea how to get healthy. I think that's probably the number one problem for most people. They don't know where to start when they're on their health journey. And that's where I was. But I knew like all the typical stuff, that I probably shouldn't be eating soft-serve three times a day like I was and I'm not exaggerating. After every meal, I'd like to go to the machine and make myself a cone. So, I laid off the sugar a little bit.

    Elizabeth Stein 06:10
    Was there anyone who had even introduced the idea to you because I think for a lot of people, they might not even connect, like I'm having brain fog, or I'm tired with what they're eating, and correlate that. So that was a step in college for you to know that.

    Danielle Brown 06:28
    You're right about that. I feel like no one has asked me that before. And it's true, I think probably the first thing someone would do is go to the doctor, tell them the symptoms, and maybe they'd be prescribed medication or they would just be told that it's normal. You're a college student and you're tired because you're staying up partying and not sleeping and you're studying and all those things. But yeah, somehow I made the correlation that I was gaining a little weight. But I also noticed that I knew I wasn't eating healthy. You know if you're eating ice cream three times a day, and you're having Alfredo every night at the pasta bar, that's not the best for you. So I wanted to make a change and slowly started making changes. I was doing it in a dorm and I had limited resources. I didn't have a car, I didn't have a kitchen. I had a mini fridge and a microwave and I didn't have any money. So that didn't help either. But I started microwaving sweet potatoes in my dorm room. I’d go to the dining hall and I just made the salad bar my best friend. I would make these huge salads and I would just go back a million times and they had chickpeas and all kinds of different seeds. And they even had whole wheat pasta in my dorm. I would ask for that at the pasta bar. I started asking for marinara sauce. They would use some mystery oil to saute all the vegetables. Maybe like a corn or a canola and I would ask them to just steam everything with water. And I just started making these small changes. I should say before I started making those small changes, I had stumbled across the idea of a plant-based diet and I watched a couple of documentaries about it and I thought that being vegan was beyond strange. I didn't get how someone could eat meals without having meat because I didn't even really love meat growing up. But like cheese? I was a big cheese gal. I loved fish too, loved salmon, and loved getting sushi with fish in it. So I was just confused about how to make a meal that didn't contain animal products but I decided to try it and that is what led me to being creative like microwaving sweet potatoes in my dorm room. I'd get those microwave rice packets that I’d heat. I found that in my dorm, they sold almost like chickpeas. It was like vegan Chana Masala that you heat it in the microwave but somehow had like healthy ingredients and I’d find rice in the dining hall and then mix it. I got creative and after four months of eating plant-based like this, I didn't miss meat. I didn't miss cheese. But most importantly I felt amazing. I used to suffer from really chronic chest pain, which was like horrible heartburn. And my digestion was awful. This heartburn started when I was 18 years old and lasted through my freshman year of college. But when I went plant-based, that completely went away. I lost 20 pounds again, I wasn't trying to lose weight but I think my body just somehow like found its balance and I had more energy than ever before. I had to take, I'm not kidding, three-hour naps a day because I was so fatigued. I was getting no energy or nutrition from my food. So I just needed to sleep so much. And so much energy. My skin looked amazing. My hair looked great and I felt like my healthiest self but at the same time, I didn't feel deprived and I felt super satisfied with the food I was eating. And I was doing it without a kitchen and making it work in my dorm room. And I'm like, if I can feel this great eating plant-based with limited resources, I want to teach anyone and everyone how to do this. And I didn't know exactly what my path was going to be. But I knew I had to help people be plant-based, or at least eat more plant-based meals. I know it's not realistic to expect everyone to be vegan, but at least learn how to eat a couple of plant-based meals a day or maybe have a plant-based breakfast. That's how the transition happened.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:32
    Well, it's such an amazing journey for you, especially being in college and getting so creative. Did you have friends or family who were plant-based or anyone around you? What were they saying about this change? And how supportive were they?

    Danielle Brown 10:51
    My friends and family are not plant based. And my husband who was my boyfriend at the time was not plant-based. He was eating paleo at the time. So he was mainly focusing on animal foods. He was doing the opposite. He was having his seven-egg omelet in the morning and having meat multiple times a day. And when he was paleo, there were some rules like you can't have chickpeas, you can't have rice, and random stuff like that. So we were just on complete opposites of the eating spectrum. But my friends and family were always super supportive. I think it was like maybe the older generation that asked questions like, “Where do you get your protein? Did you tell your doctor that you're doing this? What about one day when you want to have kids? Like, are you gonna go back to eating meat?” I'm like, whoa. It was overwhelming that all of a sudden, people were so concerned. And it's funny. I was eating so unhealthy and wasn't taking care of myself. And here I am eating so well, eating salads and sweet potato and beans and like whole grains and all these amazing foods, and then people become concerned. That is when they were worried about me. But my parents were always super supportive. My mom, I call her 99% plant-based because she has fish once in a while. But she is primarily vegan. And my mother-in-law is now totally plant-based. My husband is now totally vegan. He's even more intense than I am. But yeah, I think I've helped to influence a lot of my friends and family, which I think I always say it's much harder to change your friends and family than it is to help strangers.

    Elizabeth Stein 12:42
    Oh, boy, the last ones usually follow. So as you talk about influencing, you're in college and feel the amazing benefits of your lifestyle change and want to start helping people. What were those next steps for you in eventually starting HealthyGirl kitchen? What did you study in school?

    Danielle Brown 13:03
    I studied psychology and had a minor in health promotion. In the psychology part, I just wanted to understand the human mind more. I feel like eating choices are so connected beyond just your eating choices. It's your emotional relationships, it's the stress in your life that there's so much more involved. And I really thought that understanding the human brain a little bit more would help me with that. And then health promotion, I studied nutrition and kinesiology and all those things. But I knew about halfway through college that I wanted to do some program like a health coaching program or which was popular at the time. And I think still is. But I didn't want to do the whole dietitian thing I feel like a lot of dietitians end up in a hospital setting and you're dietetics training, you're often in a hospital setting. It wasn't for me, I just felt like that wasn't the path. I wanted to do something a little bit more informal if that makes sense. I love school. I always did well in school, but I didn't like doing a call to dietetics hours. I'm like I'm done after this. I just need to be done with school.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:17
    And so much of that too I feel like probably would have included a lot of promotion of dairy and meat and things that probably weren't aligned with you.

    Danielle Brown 14:27
    For sure. I never thought about going down that path. A lot of people ask me whether I became a dietitian but I didn't. Long story short, did IIN, Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and became certified as a health coach. I had no idea what I was doing. I liked that they also taught you the business aspect of things like we're learning all about health but then also how to start your practice which still as much as they taught you, it's like when I graduated, I still am like okay, now I have to start my own business. But I did and I started getting clients and I started teaching them how to eat plant-based. And at the same time, I decided to post my recipes on a blog, on Instagram and Facebook. But just for fun, I had no intention of creating a business out of it. I had no intention of monetizing a food career of any sort. I simply like when a client would say, “Hey, Danielle, I need a healthy breakfast idea.” I just wanted to be able to tell them, “Hey, go check out my website, or my Instagram or something, and you can find the recipe.” But within a few months, my website started getting 1000s and 1000s of people, my Instagram started getting more followers, and my Facebook page started blowing up and getting a ton of engagement. And people were just really loving my vegan recipes. And my website had enough people where I could then sign on with an ad company, and then gain revenue from people coming to my blog and gaining money from ads. So that was the moment when my eyes were open to being able to make a career out of it. I'm like, I can make money from people coming to my recipe blog. I have so much fun making recipes. This is the best time and I can't believe I can just post this and then I make money from the traffic that comes to the website. So that was like the first little bit of money I started making. But then small brands started reaching out and I started doing some brand work. Nothing can make a living off of but again, it just opened my eyes. Like I'm talking $20 to post something. I'm like $20, I would have made these brownies either way. But it opened my eyes that you could create a career out of social media and recipe blogging. So, I decided to stop health coaching one on one and decided to pursue HealthyGirl Kitchen full-time at the beginning of 2020. It was just 2020 when the pandemic started. My wedding was canceled because of the pandemic. And I'm like, if I'm going to be at home doing nothing and my wedding is canceled, I'm just gonna pour everything into my business. TikTok had just started. I'm like, I'm going to try to figure out this thing. I don't know what TikTok is, but I'm going to start posting recipes there. And then Instagram introduced reels, which was a huge shift for creators going from picture content to video content. And I should say a challenging shift because it's so different being able to succeed in the world of video versus just taking a picture. And then my reel started to do well. I liked making video content, I think it's much easier to teach someone how to make a recipe using a video tutorial instead of a picture. You can in 15 seconds explain to them how to make a recipe and I think it is a much more approachable and relatable way for people to watch the video and say, “Oh, that's not that hard.” So yeah, it started in 2020 and here we are.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:02
    Now you have almost 4 million followers or something. Insane at that time. That's incredible. But I think you're so right. I think particularly what you're doing is making plant-based vegan food so approachable, so delicious so creative. I feel like when I look at your salads, for example, it's just like, oh, that's such a great idea. It's so creative. Let me add in all the good things, which is what I love about what you're doing, too. It's not just here's a couple of ingredients, but you're adding in all the good things. And you see that it's simple. I can do this in five minutes. I just need to have the ingredients on hand. I'm curious what your first couple of reels or TikToks were that went viral and started to snowball for you.

    Danielle Brown 18:56
    There was a couple of them so on TikTok, I wanted to create this safe space, a very community aspect to HealthyGirl Kitchen, I wanted people to feel like when they came to my page or when they watch my videos, or when they follow me, subscribe. However they're interacting with my content, I wanted them to feel like they weren't judged in any way. I had followed a lot of vegan creators that unfortunately were super judgmental of anyone who wasn't vegan and their main goal was to convert people to veganism. And again, that would be like my dream if everyone went vegan, especially I'm an ethical vegan as well. You can do what you want with your health, but in terms of animal cruelty and all that, yeah, I would love for everyone to save the animals and not eat them. But again, it's not realistic. So I wanted people to know that when they came to my page, I'm not judging them. Like whether they're vegan, whether they're not whether they just do a meatless Monday, whether they're eating plant-based 50% of the time, I don't care. I'm just here to show you and inspire you to make easy plant-based recipes and show you how to make tofu taste good, show you how to turn chickpeas into brownies, those kinds of things. So I made a couple of videos, just sharing that message and saying, “Hey, I'm Danielle, I'm a nonjudgmental vegan. And here are a ton of free recipes that I'm here to inspire you with and Healthy Kitchen Tips and meal ideas and wellness advice.” And those blew up. People resonated with that because no one wants to be judged. No one wants to feel forced into any lifestyle. So, for anyone who had maybe been thinking about giving up meat, thinking about being vegan, or vegetarian, this was a way to introduce them in a very gentle way. And I think they felt that it was like a safe space to do so. So that on TikTok blew up first. And then on Instagram, it was my life-changing salad series, that did well. They are life-changing. It was my life-changing salad series that like blew up my following. I think. I think the message behind that blowing up is people want easy recipes. There are so many beautiful food accounts on Instagram. But a lot of the food that's posted, it's beautiful, but it's super complicated. No one has time for a lot of it. And I'll never call myself a chef. I love to cook. I love to be in the kitchen. But I'm also busy, I don't have a ton of time. Just because I like to cook doesn't mean I want to be cooking all day. I like to cook but I also really like to eat. So I want to cook something quickly. And I want to eat something that tastes good. So I think that the salads showed people that you could make easy meals that taste great. And also that salads don't have to be boring or just have lettuce and tomato. I post quinoa salads and pasta salads and tortellini salads and fruit salad and everything in between. I just think that it inspired people to not only eat healthier, but it showed them that they can make filling healthy meals that taste good too. And I have to say a lot of the life-changing salads can go in the fridge and they stay good for up to four days. So I encourage all the videos to make a big batch for the beginning of the week. For example, one quinoa salad, make a big batch of that and then you can eat it for four lunches. So you make it once and then it stays good in the fridge and stays tasting fresh. I think people liked that too.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:28
    Yeah, I think there are so many good nuggets of helpful tips there in getting people to a) cook for themselves, b) add in better ingredients and be healthy, doing it fast and easy. As we're talking about your life changing salads, for anyone who doesn't know what those look like, what tips do you have for just creating such amazingly delicious salads?

    Danielle Brown 22:53
    Okay, first you need your favorite lettuce. I think lettuce is a very personal thing. So pick your favorite. I love a mix. I think a mix does the best. Like a kale mix with the romaine just so you have the hardiness of kale but the crunch of the romaine and then a couple of your favorite vegetables and then different textures. I would add a crunch of some kind. So maybe a nut, a seed, some croutons, or tortilla chips. You got to have the crunch in there. Some other texture that's maybe soft like a roasted sweet potato I think is amazing and a salad, some grain. Make them hearty and fill them up. I love quinoa, I love doing brown rice. Then I think the best part is the dress. You could have the most amazing ingredients and then if you have no dressing, your salad isn't fun. I am a huge dressing girl. I like my salad probably like overdressed. I don't know about you but when I go to a restaurant, I need an extra side dressing because it's never enough. So I like just having a really good dressing and I think my favorite dressing lately is probably doing just pesto. I just always keep pesto on hand because it can go on pasta, it can go on a salad, it can go on a bowl, you can saute tofu and add it to it. Like if you've pesto on hand, you can freeze it too. It can just really go on anything I have in my cookbook, HealthyGirl Kitchen Cookbook I have my go-to dairy-free pesto recipe. I think a lot of people love pesto, but they want a dairy-free version. I think it's the best pesto. I use nutritional yeast instead of cheese. And it just makes a really good pesto.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:37
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    Danielle Brown 25:48
    Those would be good.

    Elizabeth Stein 25:50
    Good flavors.

    Danielle Brown 25:51
    I was eating popcorn the other day. And I'm like, maybe popcorn can make a good crouton. But then I also don't know if the dressing would make it too soft. That was an idea we'll see.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:05
    As we're talking about tips, I'd love to hear especially with your IIN experience and how you're working with clients. So as you think about it, I'm sure everybody asks you like, what tips do you have for people going vegan? But I think it's more so than that. How to make a change we talked about having people in your life being supportive. Or what are those tips that are helpful that you find, whether it's working with clients, or just people who have asked you?

    Danielle Brown 26:37
    I think the number one thing is to take things slow, but also to meet yourself where you are. Let's just say, a fake person, Maggie. She goes to McDonald's three times a day. She has a busy life. All she can do is fast food or she thinks all she can do is fast food, she doesn't know how to cook, she has a super busy job. And that's what she's doing. Then on the other hand, you could have Bob, maybe he's mainly vegetarian, but he wants to be vegan, and he has a salmon salad for lunch. And for dinner, he's having maybe a little cheese on his pasta, but he's cooking and he has more of a healthy lifestyle. I think you have to evaluate where you are in your life because no one's going to have the same starting point. So maybe it would be easier for Bob to just quickly transition to being vegan, taking that cheese off his pasta and adding a vegan one. And instead of salmon on his salad at lunch, he's doing a grilled tofu. But then when you have Maggie who's eating fast food three times a day, the changes are gonna have to be a little slower, because when you just tell her to be fully vegan, it's like she has a lot of work to do. And that could be overwhelming. So I would say though as a general rule of thumb, just start with breakfast and have a vegan breakfast every single day or a plant based breakfast or even just a health-conscious breakfast if you're not even ready to make that jump. But do an avocado toast, learn how to make a smoothie, up Google a chia pudding recipe, or learn how to make overnight oats. Like I think overnight oats are some of the best things that you can have for breakfast because you make it the night before and it's ready in the morning. And you don't have to do anything when you wake up. It's just already there. So, I would say start with breakfast. Then once you conquer breakfast and feel confident about that, you can move on to the next thing. But I would just say start with one meal a day.

    Elizabeth Stein 28:34
    Love that. What's your favorite protein powder?

    Danielle Brown 28:36
    You try a bunch of them. I always have six of them in my house. I rotate between them. But in general, I like chocolate or vanilla. I genuinely have seven on hand at one time.

    Elizabeth Stein 28:52
    Which one do you think is good to change it up?

    Danielle Brown 28:55
    I have a million of them but I would say in terms of protein, I would just make sure that it doesn't have any weird ingredients.

    Elizabeth Stein 29:04
    Do you have a preference for peas or soy as the source of protein?

    Danielle Brown 29:09
    I just like to make sure that it's not an isolate. If it's soy, that it's just soy protein. It's not soy protein isolate. There's this brand Wellious where they have an almond protein. It has four ingredients in the whole protein powder. It's super yummy.

    Elizabeth Stein 29:31
    All right. One other specific question. Favorite tofu brand or type of tofu to look for.

    Danielle Brown 29:38
    I have this new favorite tofu. I think the brand is Big Mountain Foods. Shout out to them. Not sponsored or anything. I wish they would sponsor me. I love them. But they have soy-free tofu. I don't avoid soy but it just tastes so good. I think I like it better than regular tofu now. I've been eating it almost every day. It's made from fava beans. So look out for it. I get it at Sprouts. But look at the brands, Big Mountain Foods. I don't know if you want to put that in the show notes. But it's delicious. And it has, I think, more protein than regular tofu. I think it digests a little bit better for me, as well. I don't know if that's soy or something, but it's delicious. It gets crispier than regular tofu. I think the biggest difference is it

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